Sunday, November 9, 2014

Microsoft has its head in the cloud over ugly wearable tech

The Microsoft Band is ugly, clunky and, according to reviewers, not particularly accurate.
Microsoft has released its own fitness tracker – for the moment in the US only, which means I haven’t been able to lay my hands on one. But plenty of people have, and have written about the experience.
The Microsoft Band is roughly what it says it is – a wristband with a screen that shows various bits of data, such as how far you have run or walked, your heart rate and smartphone notifications (email, calendar, messages). And it has its own GPS, so that it knows where you’ve been while wearing it.
The problem that quite a few of the testers seemed to have was that they didn’t like wearing the band. “Uncomfortable,” said Jon Phillips at PC World, adding that after two days of testing, he thought he could imagine how Lindsay Lohan must have felt when forced to wear a police ankle bracelet.
At the New York Times, Molly Wood said “the band is uncomfortable to wear with the screen on top of the wrist. It feels like trying to fit a round wrist into a square band.”
There are some obvious questions here, such as why is Microsoft making a fitness tracker? This is a company better known to people of one generation as the maker of Windows and Office, and to another as the creator of the Xbox. Neither quite implies connection to knowing how many steps you’ve walked today or what your heartbeat is (though it might be useful in the latter).
One could argue that Microsoft’s new “devices and cloud” strategy – where both elements are primus inter pares, first among equals – means that making something that is physical, but which also connects to the cloud so that you know just what your heartrate was on 31 October at 3am, fits snugly around the picture of yourself that you want to build in the weird world that people who produce fitness trackers live in.
And Microsoft fans – they do exist – have delightedly pointed out that the band is “sold out” on the online Microsoft store. How many were sold? Um, Microsoft’s not saying. I doubt there were many to sell in the first place. If the number bought by people outside Microsoft is in the thousands, I’d be slightly surprised.
The Microsoft Band is ugly, clunky, and, according to reviewers, its heartrate monitoring is not particularly accurate. And the solid, non-curved screen on top isn’t highly rated for comfort.
This is where we move into the real world that wearables have to fit into, or wrap around.
Unlike a desktop or even laptop computer, which can look ugly but still be wonderfully functional, wearable computers have to look and feel good. They’re an expression of ourselves and our choices: if you choose something that doesn’t look good, it’s not an accident, and all the functionality in the world (and the band is said to have a great deal of it) won’t make up for the fact that you look as though you’re under house arrest. It’s a different era, one where designers’ skills will be at a premium.
Microsoft hasn’t in the past impressed with its abilities here; for the most part it hasn’t had to, though the constant improvement in the Surface line of tablets suggests that its teams are at least refining their skills.
But it’s not hard to think that it’s the companies with the best hardware design skills, allied to the best access to new technologies (note how Samsung has a curved screen on its Gear Fit, because it makes the screens), and the best software that will succeed in the wearable era.
It’s still very early days, though. If this were the smartphone era, we’re still roughly in 2004 – when a tiny market was dominated by Nokia’s Symbian, RIM’s BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. There’s a long way to go.

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